Phone numbers point to 'jihadist link' in Mali hotel siege

Carina Janse Van Rensburg (left) is comforted by family members on Aug 9, 2015 at her home in Pretoria, South Africa, after her husband Jaco Janse Van Rensburg was killed in the Byblos Hotel siege in Mali on Aug 7.
Carina Janse Van Rensburg (left) is comforted by family members on Aug 9, 2015 at her home in Pretoria, South Africa, after her husband Jaco Janse Van Rensburg was killed in the Byblos Hotel siege in Mali on Aug 7.PHOTO: AFP

BAMAKO, (AFP) - Telephone numbers and addresses found on the bodies of four "terrorists" killed in a deadly hotel hostage siege in Mali point the finger of blame at a jihadist group, officials said on Monday.

Five UN workers were among the victims when troops ended the protracted standoff with jihadists by storming the Byblos Hotel in the central town of Sevare on Saturday.

Investigators said there were "strong suspicions" the hostage-takers were from the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), an Islamist extremist group drawn from the Fulani people from the centre of the country.

"Investigators found telephone numbers and address on the bodies of the terrorists... which supports the FLM theory," a security source in Sevare said.

"An identity card found on one of them has the name Tamboura and showed he was born in Tenenkou, a village in the Macina area," she added.

The Malian government said four Malian soldiers, five UN workers and four "terrorists" were killed. The casualties included two Ukrainians, a Nepalese and a South African, according to the UN mission in Mali (Minusma).

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which has coincided with a surge in jihadist violence in the west African country in recent months despite a peace deal.

"At this stage there is no formal proof that it was the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), but strong suspicions point to this group that has been seeking notoriety at all costs," the source said.

Since it first appeared earlier this year, the FLM has claimed a number of attacks, including some targeting security forces in central Mali.

It is considered to be linked to Ansar Dine - Arabic for Defenders of Faith - which is one of the groups that took control of Mali's vast arid north in April 2012.

The United States placed Ansar Dine on its terror blacklist in 2013, accusing it of close links with Al-Qaeda and of torturing and killing opponents in the north.

The private Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar, which regularly publishes jihadist statements, also said on Sunday that the FLM "could be behind the attack in Sevare".

The deadly siege began early on Friday when gunmen burst into the hotel frequented by expatriates.

The Malian army - along with foreign special forces, according to a Malian military source - stormed the building, bringing the siege to an end nearly 24 hours later.

Minusma said that apart from the four foreign UN contractors, the dead also included a Malian driver working for a company contracted by the mission.

The four Malian soldiers were buried in Sevare on Saturday.

- Soldiers on patrol -

A government official said life was getting back to normal on Sunday with "many marriages going ahead in the town with car horns blaring as people celebrated".

Troops could be seen in Sevare on Sunday as well as along the road to the nearby regional capital Mopti, a popular tourist destination and the gateway to Dogon Country, a Unesco World Heritage site.

A Sevare resident told AFP by telephone in Bamako that "people are starting to go about their business. Everything is returning to normal here in Sevare", he said.

Located some 12km from Mopti and 620km north-east of the capital Bamako, Sevare is a key staging post on the road to Mali's vast desert north, which fell to Islamic extremists in 2012.

A French-led offensive routed Islamist groups from their northern strongholds the following year, but entire swathes of the desert region remain lawless.

UN chief Ban Ki Moon, France and the United States all denounced the hotel attack, which came as the former French colony is seeking to implement a June peace deal with armed groups aimed at ending years of unrest and ethnic divisions.

The main Tuareg-led rebel alliance known as Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which was the last group to sign the peace accord, on Sunday issued a statement condemning the "terrorist attack" in Sevare.

The violence served as a reminder of the importance of the peace process and "hostile groups" should not be allowed to torpedo those efforts, it said.

Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali's north, but began spreading early this year to the centre of the country, and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

Two attacks earlier this month in central and northern Mali left 13 soldiers dead.